Britain's boom in recycling is being hampered by widespread ignorance and confusion about what is classified as recyclable.
The UK languishes far behind its European competitors in recycling rates, prompting the Government to order a review of its waste strategy which could pave the way to a new "pay-as-you-throw" scheme for bin collections. But despite significant growth in the amount of waste being recycled across the UK, campaigners say current definitions of recyclable waste are "ad hoc and confusing".
Concern is rising that enthusiasm for recycling, with nine out of ten UK households now participating in a scheme, is being undermined by big variations in what local authorities consider recyclable waste.
A survey of industry professionals found that nearly six out of 10 believe the public is confused about the type of plastic that can be put in a recycling box. The same proportion state that the failure to educate householders is delaying the recycling process.
Britain, which currently recycles 22.5 per cent of waste, has been set a target 25 per cent by the end of this year. The figure is already 28 per cent in France, 58 per cent in Germany and 65 per cent in the Netherlands, which leads the EU league. Only Greece and Portugal recycle less than the UK.
The study by YouGov found that the lack of clarity is dissuading people from increasing their recycling activity, with 46 per cent of people saying they would recycle more if they had a better understanding of what is recyclable.
Campaigners argue that such figures show the Government is failing to direct tactics to maximise recycling rates. City & Guilds, the training organisation, has introduced a qualification for recycling workers to improve understanding of the industry.
Michael Warhurst, senior waste and resources campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "In many ways it is not surprising that people are confused.
"The Government does not set out any best practice for recycling. You can put your Yellow Pages in the recycling box in one borough but it gets rejected in the neighbouring one. There is much about recyclingthat is ad hoc and confusing. A compostable plastic water bottle is now on the market. But if it goes to the recycling bin it does not work.
"We should be working towards phasing out rubbish bins altogether. Instead, the Government is talking about building incinerators."
The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank has said that introducing financial incentives could be the only way to increase recycling rates. The idea was enthusiastically backed by councils, who face fines of £150 for every ton of rubbish that goes to a landfill site if they do not meet recycling targets.